UPDATE: On Tuesday (Oct 25), a Russian court rejected WNBA star Brittney Griner's appeal of her nine-year prison sentence for drug charges. After the state prosecutor deemed the original decision "fair," Griner, 32, will continue serving her sentence in Russia for carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage. Another appeal is possible through Russia’s highest court of appeals, but it is unclear if Griner and her legal team will pursue another appeal.
“She had some hope but that vanished today,” Maria Blagovolina, Griner’s lawyer, told reporters, according to Reuters. The U.S. government has declared Griner as wrongfully detained and it is looking more and more likely that her only path to freedom is the Biden administration negotiating her release.
The following story was originally published on August 4, 2022.
After being detained by Russian police at Sheremetyevo Airport on drug allegations in February, WNBA athlete Brittney Griner has officially been sentenced to 9.5 years in prison. The harsh sentencing comes after a months-long community outcry and government push to have the 31-year-old basketball player released from custody, but to no avail.
In March 2022, news broke that Griner had been arrested while traveling through Sheremetyevo Airport, with local authorities claiming that a full search of the athlete and her belongings produced vape cartridges containing less than one gram of cannabis oil — a serious allegation considering that recreational and medical use of marijuana is still illegal in Russia. Although Griner told the authorities that the cannabis oil being in her possession was unintentional, a result of “packing in a hurry,” she was not allowed to go free. Instead, she’s been in police custody since the day of her arrest and ultimately pleaded guilty to the drug charges brought against her. The judge sentenced Griner to 9.5 years in prison and fined her one million rubies (about $16,400), concluding that Griner had criminal intent and that she was guilty of smuggling and storing illegal drugs.
“Brittney Griner's detainment in Russia is a cruel reminder of the systemic and disproportionate criminalization of Black people for minor drug-related offenses and the incarceration of Black people at large,” Dominique Symone of Black Feminist Future wrote for Unbothered last month.
As the United States attempts to broker peace with Russia during its ongoing lethal conflict with Ukraine, the government has also made some attempts to barter for Griner’s freedom (after immense public pressure). The Biden administration has reportedly been in communication with the Russian government trying to solidify an agreement that would release Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout from his 25-year US prison sentence in exchange Griner and Paul Whelan, a former Marine being held overseas on espionage charges. Unfortunately, the Russian government has not yet accepted the terms of the proposed agreement, and both Griner and Whelan remain imprisoned.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” President Biden said in an official statement following Griner’s sentencing. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” concluded Biden’s statement.
Griner’s legal team told reporters that they intend to file an appeal to reduce her sentence.
This is a developing story.